Vail still wrestling with home size regulations

Scott N. Miller
June 23, 2004

It's confusing, it's complicated and it's a big part of property values and community vitality in Vail.

"It" is Vail's package of "gross residential floor area" regulations, a 30-year-old set of rules that limit home sizes in town. Since the fall of 2002, town officials have been working on modifying the rules, primarily to simplify the mind-boggling complexity of determining just how much of a building lot a home can occupy.

In the process, the proposed changes also might allow at least some residents to add a bit more space in their homes.

Controlling the size of homes is a crucial element of the regulations - also known as GRFA - for most Vail Town Council members. Councilman Dick Cleveland recently expressed concerns that opening the door to too much square footage on building lots could lead to tearing down existing homes in residential neighborhoods and replacing them with large second homes.

"The implication of bigger houses to local residents is it will push working people out of Vail," Cleveland said.

Houses do need to get slightly bigger, though, said John Nilson of Sonnenalp Real Estate. Nilson, who has sold real estate in the area for more than 30 years, said buyers are demanding more space these days, and Vail has to keep up. "The old regulation stood Vail well over the years; it kept things controlled," Nilson said. "But the type of product people now demand has changed." Buyers looking for vacation homes are looking for storage space, media rooms, wine rooms and other amenities, he said.

"I know Dick and Diana are concerned about mass and bulk," Nilson said, acknowledging the concerns of Cleveland, councilwoman Diana Donovan and others. "And I do believe the new regulations will increase mass and bulk somewhat. But will it affect the balance of the community? No."

In fact, a former member of the town's planning commission, a board that advises the Town Council on development, argues the changes will actually help keep people in Vail.

"The town should be thinking hard about ways to keep people from leaving," Eric Shirley said. Allowing residents to expand their homes, particularly basements, will encourage people to stay. And, Shirley added, expanding basements doesn't really affect what people see above ground.

But the definition of "basement," and how to ward off attempts at future abuse, has stymied the Town Council for several meetings. While Councilwoman Diana Donovan has argued that new regulations need to be as close to perfect as possible, Shirley said that's not realistic.

"There's no perfect definition of 'basement,'" Shirley said. "But there's still going to be basements."

Shirley, who owns one of the "row houses" along Gore Creek Drive, said his ability to add a basement is about the only improvement that makes sense for his property. But a local architect who has worked in the area for about 30 years said adding a basement isn't something just anyone can do.

"More often than not, it will be an expensive proposition," Jim Morter said. "If (homeowners) already have deep foundation walls, it's relatively easy. If not, it's pretty tough."

Beyond other issues, though, any regulation that affects square footage in Vail raises one essential issue: money.

"Changing GRFA is essentially altering Vail's monetary system," Vail Village Homeowners Association director Jim Lamont said. In a town where every square foot of buildable land is worth so much, changing the rules governing home sizes is an issue with millions of dollars at stake.

And often, remodeling a home comes down to dollars. Shirley, who is remodeling his home on Gore Creek Drive, said only two of the homes along the street have been significantly renovated since the 1960s.

"The old rules make design so expensive and difficult for the layman to grasp," that many people simply don't bother, Shirley said.

While town council members continue to wrestle with definitions and the other details of the complex regulations, councilman Kent Logan said he is ready to vote.

"I think we're close," Logan said. "It's time to be specific, but my concern is we don't prolong this any longer."

And the people of Vail have spoken on the issue, Shirley said.

"We had tons of (planning commission) meetings, and they were well attended," he said. "We got a very clear picture of what people want. That picture has been diluted by the council."

In the end, though, Shirley said he's confident the council will soon adopt a version of the rules close to what the planning commission recommended. Which means, in the end, Vail residents may be allowed to create a bit more space in their homes.

The changes Vail has had its "Gross Residential Floor Area" regulations in place since the 1970s. The intent of the rules is to control how big a home can be built on a given building lot. The Vail Town Council is expected to vote July 6 on an ordinance that would implement the following changes to the regulations:

• Repealing provisions that allow owners of existing homes to add another 250 square feet of floor space, and allow slight square footage "bonuses" for interior remodeling projects.

• Changes the way the town calculates square footage, changing measurement points from interior to exterior walls.

• "Vaulted spaces," such as cathedral ceilings, will be counted as floor area in order to limit the addition of loft space

• Basements will be exempt from the regulations.

•Parking requirements will be adjusted.

• The changes will apply to both new construction and remodeling projects.